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Collision Course
October 02, 2006
Is another Subway Series inevitable? Sure seems to be, but this is October, when there are higher powers than even the pulverizing offenses of the Yankees and the Mets
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October 02, 2006

Collision Course

Is another Subway Series inevitable? Sure seems to be, but this is October, when there are higher powers than even the pulverizing offenses of the Yankees and the Mets

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1. N.Y. Mets (2) 6.30 10 +18 5 5.61 4 19
2. Minnesota (4) 6.61 3 0 T15 6.06 3 21
3. Philadelphia (8) 6.52 6 0 T15 3.42 15 36
4. N.Y. Yankees (10) 5.92 17 +4 13 5.25 8 38
5. Oakland (12) 5.91 18 +13 9 3.64 13 40
6. Detroit (14) 5.83 22 +32 2 2.27 18 42
7. San Diego (15) 5.67 26 +12 10 5.40 7 43
8. L.A. Dodgers (17) 5.88 20 -4 18 4.81 9 47
9. St. Louis (23) 5.30 29 +14 7 1.04 22 58

Rarely have the best teams in each league been more obvious heading into the postseason than they are this week--and not in a half century have both those favorites been from New York. Whether or not Bud Selig, Fox TV executives, fans in the Heartland and John Rocker want to hear it, the World Series figures to be like a grotesquely thick pastrami on rye: pure New York and difficult for an out-of-towner to stomach. � At week's end the Mets and the Yankees were at the top their leagues in wins; first in the NL and second in the AL, respectively, in run differential; and--this does not go unnoticed in a year in which a new revenue-sharing system is being negotiated--had their leagues' largest payrolls. Says one National League general manager of the teams' financial advantages, "It's fantasy baseball. It's a joke."

In 2000, when the Yankees and the Mets met in the first Subway Series since the Bronx Bombers beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956, the upstart, wild-card Mets bowed in five games. The rest of the country largely ignored the Series; TV ratings fell 22.5% from the Yankees-Braves Fall Classic of the previous season. Only the Giants-Angels series in '02 and the White Sox' sweep of the Astros last year have drawn smaller audiences.

These Mets, though, have a distinctly different look from their 2000 forebears. With Yankees-like investments in free agents over the last several winters (pitchers Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner, and centerfielder Carlos Beltran), they blew unchallenged through a weak league. "I don't think any team other than the Mets can knock off the Yankees," the NL G.M. says. "I know it's baseball and anything can happen, but put it this way: It's New York's World Series to lose."

Says an AL G.M., "The Mets should come out of the NL, but that league is playing for the right to lose the World Series. I don't see enough dominant starting pitching out there for anybody to shut down the Yankees."

With an unrelenting combination of patience and power on offense, the Yankees are so deep that manager Joe Torre will not pinch-hit for any of his nine regulars. That puts his lineup in a class with that of Cincinnati's 1976 Big Red Machine, which swept the Yankees in the World Series without platooning or pinch-hitting for a nonpitcher, and that of the '53 Dodgers, who lost the Fall Classic in six to the Yankees without replacing any of its eight position players for offensive purposes.

Who has frontline, experienced pitching to thwart the Yankees? The staffs of their likely AL obstacles--the Tigers, Twins and A's--are 4--7 combined in playoff starts, with A's lefty Barry Zito accounting for three of those wins. Moreover, the closers for those clubs have a total of one save and 5 2/3 postseason innings. "If we play our game, I'll take our chances," Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman says. "We have a very talented and a very motivated team that's a lot more balanced than the last few we've taken into the postseason. We run the bases better, play better defense and find [more] ways to score."

Similarly, the Mets figure to dominate their half of the bracket. Their most glaring flaw is a vulnerability to lefthanders. But if Philadelphia doesn't seize the wild card, the Mets would face no lefty closers and only one southpaw starter: 43-year-old David Wells of the Padres.

For all that, fans west of the Hudson River shouldn't tune out yet. The three-round postseason format, which debuted in 1995, introduces so much unpredictability that half of the last 12 World Series teams didn't even win their own divisions. And of the last six Series champions, three did not finish in the top third of their league in run differential. Dismayed at the idea of a Subway Series? Here are some limbs you might go out on.

Mariano Rivera's right forearm
The Yankees' lineup is at once arguably the most menacing in baseball history and overrated--at least when it comes to October baseball. In the book Baseball Between the Numbers, Baseball Prospectus studied every playoff team from 1972 through 2005 and concluded, "There is literally no relationship between regular-season offense and postseason success." It found that the three most important postseason factors are a team's ability to strike out batters, its defense and its closer (chart, left). In other words, during the postseason the prevention of runs matters more than the accumulation of runs. The Yankees' chances, therefore, hinge less on their lineup than on the health of their closer, Rivera, who missed most of September with forearm soreness. Torre loves to deploy him in the eighth inning during the postseason, but he can't do that if Rivera hasn't fully recovered.

Johan Santana's left arm
The Twins' ace is the best starting pitcher in the postseason, and he'll go twice in a five-game, first-round series. Santana can shut down any offense, leaving the less imposing trio of Carlos Silva, Boof Bonser and Matt Garza to win one of the other three games. Silva and Bonser, however, have pitched well in September, and with their hard-throwing, shutdown bullpen, the Twins rate as a better postseason pick than the Yankees when the Baseball Prospectus formula is applied.

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